The Lockout resonated with trade unionists and activists worldwide, writes Francis Devine
INTERNATIONAL STRUGGLES – Striking miners march in Ales in France in 1914. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
Arrival of the SS Hare bringing food from British woorkers to locked out Dublin workers.
From 1889, trade union organisation extended internationally from craft workers into the masses of transport, waterfront, mine and semi-skilled metal workers. Aggressive employer action, supported by state, police and army, countered this mobilisation. Conflicts were marked by violence, damage to property and deaths.
After 1900, socialist parties rose alongside trade unions. For workers fighting to gain their rightful share of the wealth they created, this was class struggle. Established political elites and their commercial and industrial backers understood this, fearing the outcome. Disputes were fought on pay and on issues that reflected growing tensions in production methodologies: length of the working day/week, payments and reward systems, discipline.
The “Great Unrest” in Britain of 1910-14 was mirrored in France, Germany, the US, South Africa and Australia. Worker organisation was “syndicalist”, a multi-faceted phenomenon characterised by reaction to the perceived failure of parliamentary action, and the caution and incorporation of trade union leaderships.
Militant sympathetic strike action was a new tactic: “an injury to one as an injury to all”. Industrial unionism countered sectionalism and craft conservatism with an ultimate ambition, through One Big Union (OBU) and the use of a general strike, to claim state power for workers.
The ITGWU informed members of global struggles through its weekly paper, the Irish Worker. James Connolly was a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or “Wobblies”) in America in 1905 and James Larkin, as the paper’s editor, reprinted syndicalist material.
IWW and Western Federation of Miners’ leader Big Bill Haywood was among the international personalities who, in person, came to support Dublin. Dublin employers saw the Lockout as a pulse in a global convulsion of revolt, an unfinished rising quenched only by divisions created by war.
In Ireland, “New Unionism” among unskilled workers in the 1890s impacted but was not sustained. Larkin’s arrival in Belfast in 1907 reinvigorated his Liverpool-based National Union of Dock Labourers branches. The resultant dockers’ and carters’ strike became the foundation stone of the island’s modern labour movement.
The Irish expression of syndicalism – “Larkinism” – instilled hope where previously acceptance and despair diminished workers. Larkin ignited Dublin’s accumulated social tinder of low wages, insecurity of employment and insanitary, over-crowded housing,with its attendant disease.
The ITGWU was not just another union. It instilled a belief that things could be changed significantly for the better. Its appeal went far beyond its own members. Employers instantly recognised this threat to their hegemony, attacking the ITGWU in Cork in 1909; Wexford, 1911-12; and Sligo and North Dublin, 1913. The union nevertheless grew. In 1911, by providing unquestioning industrial support for striking British railwaymen and sailors, Larkin and the ITGWU were on the lips of rank-and-file activists everywhere.
The British-based Trades Union Congress (TUC), founded in 1868, was criticised for “offering charity instead of solidarity”, of “wanting to settle while the Irish wanted to win”. From 1894, with the foundation of the Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC), Irish unions had ceased to affiliate to the TUC. In 1913, only two of the 544 TUC delegates were Irish-based: a Dublin railwayman and a Belfast shipwright.